Discussing Hawaiian Culture with Grand Wailea’s Cultural Ambassador, Kainoa Horcajo

As an all too familiar honeymoon and adventure destination, Maui is one of the Hawaiian islands that is no stranger to visitors traveling for a taste of its ocean and mountains, amidst an atmosphere of serenity. Yet, in being no secret destination for those looking to escape to clear waters and lush palms, to actually understand how this nature influences local culture, proves to offer a new perspective for visitors. “Here in Hawaii, we feel and watch the movement and patterns of all things; the earth, the moon, the sun, and the stars shape our calendars and by extension our lives,” says Kainoa Horcajo, the Hawaiian Cultural Ambassador at Grand Wailea

With so many titles carelessly assigned to directors and managers today, one may wonder what exactly a cultural ambassador is. For Horcajo, this role signifies an ode to the land and the locals who came before him, in an effort to convey the significance of certain practices and preservation ideals on Hawaii’s Maui island. “Hawaii is the nexus, the source of information and knowledge in the world–and people don’t necessarily know it,” he says in reference to modern social, technical and practical advances that can be traced back to Hawaiian origins. For born and bred Hawaiians, such as Horcajo, these origins began with nature, thus making time–and I mean actually making time–for nature, surrendering to its forces and understanding its role in our ancestry is what he strives to convey to the Grand Wailea’s guests and team members.

“When I see the coconut tree, I see that it is a body form of the god Ku, one of our four major deities,” he explains. “It is not just that there is a god and he is separate to me, I am actually descended from that god–therefore, the sap [from the coconut tree] is my blood.” It is this unwavering belief of universal connection that is still discoverable in locals like Horcajo as they take pride in their existence and embodiment of nature, as well as the ability to share that with so many tourists each year. It is these ubiquitous qualities that extend into Hawaiian hospitality, rituals, and respect that Horcajo aims to explain to guests, for a more authentic understanding of the incomparable welcome they receive here.

We sat down with Horcajo to learn more about this welcoming aura, how it ties back to the significance of permission and nature, and how he projects the nuances of Hawaiian culture in his routine and daily teachings.

Tell me about growing up here.

I grew up in a family that wasn’t necessarily ‘culturally Hawaiian’ because of the assimilation of our people and the Americanization of Hawaiian identity. But we did all these things that we later came to find out were very Hawaiian, we just didn’t call them that. We’d go fish or surf but before throwing out a line, or before going into the water, my aunts and uncles would just sit there and watch for what felt like a ridiculous amount of time. I would think, ‘you guys are just wasting time…’ but of course, they were paying attention, they were seeing the way the tides moved, they were looking for these little indicators that I hadn’t learned yet. That’s a very traditional, strict way of learning things–pa’a ka waha: close the mouth. Nana ka maka: look with the eyes. Hana ka lima: do what I do. [One learns by listening, observing and doing]

Do you plan to teach your daughter in the same way you were raised?

My hope is to impart in her an appreciation for things and the understanding that we’re a part of the system–not apart from the system. I try to get home from work and carry her through the forest, or we go down to the beach and try to be quiet. Growing up in the city you can see something greater than yourselves. You see these tall skyscrapers, you see these huge works, but the greatness in that was built by man, so what you see is ego. When you’re in nature and you see something greater than yourselves, it’s not us that made that. So, it expands your consciousness larger.

How do you think nature speaks to the who we are as human beings?

When you look at trees, the natural condition of plants is to emerge from their central stock and to reach toward the sun. These plants are doing essentially what my daughter does running around with her hands up, they’re exclaiming up in the air. That is the natural state of life, whether it’s human life or plant life–to be up–to be facing upwards. When we don’t see that in plant life, we call that out–the weeping willow, because it’s droopy. Yet in human life, we’ve come to accept it as normal. We see depressed, angry, sad, pissed off, frustrated people everywhere around us. We are hunched over peering into our phones, shoulders slumped. We are freaking weeping willows and we accept it as normal. And we give people pills and all sorts of shit to help when really we just need to scrub it all off so we can return to being childlike, or plant-like, and growing upward.

This morning we asked permission before launching our outrigger into the waves. Can you explain the significance of permission in Hawaiian culture?

It’s a common saying, ‘better to ask for permission than to beg for forgiveness.’ For Hawaiian culture, the process is just as important as the product. Key to that process is how you start, and how you start is with asking permission. Before you go into somebody’s house, you knock on the door. You don’t just barge in to somebody’s house and start eating their food. So, before we go into the ocean to gather things, we appeal to the powers for permission to do so, knowing that it’s a reciprocal process. We don’t just willingly take.

How far does this trace back in Hawaiian beliefs?

It goes back to a deeper concept that we believe–when the world was created, we as humans as kanaka, got here last. So, the Kumulipo, which is our Hawaiian creation story, talks about the birth of a stillborn child Haloa, who was planted and buried into the ground; out of that spot grew the taro plant. (The root corm of taro is our staple food, that we make into poi). The second child born to that union was the first man. So, we as descendants of that first man are the younger sibling of the taro. What that does is set up this relationship; the younger sibling’s job is to respect and listen to the older sibling. The older sibling’s job, in return, is to care for, protect and provide for their younger sibling. That’s our sacred relationship. That’s our obligation. That’s our kuleana. That’s our right, responsibility, privilege, our authority. In modern times, we flip that on its head and we feel like everything belongs to us; that’s the opposite of what it should be. We’re the youngest, we’re the last link in the chain. If we break the earlier links in the chain, we drift off. But if we disappear, everything else survives. That’s why we need permission, because we’re appealing to things more older and senior than us.

That also relates to the connection of humans and nature. Can you speak more to this theme?

We believe that everything is connected. And when I say all things are connected I’m not just talking about the things on earth. I’m talking about the celestial bodies as well. The moon was born Hina’aimalama. She gave birth to the gods Ku, Lono, Kane and Kanaloa so we are related to the moon as well and Ikuwa the sun. The lunation of the moon, from new moon to full moon and back, controls all the fluids on earth. The tides, the sap, the liquid in our bodies are shaped by that. When we talk about the moon calendar we generally refer to its connection to fishing and farming practices. But it also controls our emotions. The sun calendar between winter and summer, or between wet season and dry season, also influences all those practices and human behaviors. The largest calendar is the star calendar, similar to the Mayan long count calendar, and is this approximately 26 000-year cycle which shapes human migration and the changes of earth on a glacial scale. All of these things are connected to everything else in one way or the other.

How do these calendars influence the agriculture in Hawaii?

The idea that Hawaii is a year-round growing season ignores the fact that all things need rest. Even computers should be turned off every now and then, or they will overheat. That’s why the Hawaiian calendar was built with a four-month period of rest and rejuvenation for the land. We begin the year with this period of rest and rejuvenation before starting the development and planting of large plots of land and big farms. We let the land rest and rejuvenate first, we let our individual bodies rest and rejuvenate first, and the land repairs itself and we repair our interpersonal relationships in that period.

You briefly mentioned Yin-Yang, and that Hawaii has its own version of that, can you run down that regime?

Yin and Yang aligns with our belief that the creation of the world is a dualistic one. In where you have a masculine and a feminine. You have two bodies coming together and creating a descendant. That’s when we talk about the genealogy of all things. Light was the male, darkness was the female. They came together and gave birth to a male child. In that process, it identifies the kane and the wahine, or the Ku and the hina. So, the Ku in that sense is the primordial male energy, which stands up right, which is the sun. Hina identifies the primordial, celestial female energy that is represented by things which are broad; the lowlands, the oceans and the moon. The complimentary interrelated relationship between those two things control all life.

What’s one of the things you’re most proud of this culture you represent?

What I think is really interesting about Hawaiian culture, is how much its impacted the world but the world doesn’t necessarily know it. Everyone knows that surfing comes from Hawaii. Here, in Maui, we can talk about other water sports–a couple guys created kite surfing, hydro foiling and stand up paddling. The first protocols to get onto the internet are called the ALOHAprotocols. Actually, through aloha, the world can come to know we are more alike than we are different. It’s one of those words that’s transcended Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you could be in Niger or France and people have heard aloha.

So, what does aloha break down to? 

We can spend a lifetime talking about this. Aloha is a greeting of affection. Aloha can mean hello and goodbye. It can mean I love you in the sense that I am you. I don’t think we, today, can really grasp the depth of what aloha meant to traditional people. Some people describe it like this complete empathy for someone else, this complete relinquishing of one’s self for the assumption into a greater whole. Some people will break down aloha into alo and ha. The front of your bodies is our alo; our eyes, our ears, our nose, our mouth, and that’s how we connect with somebody; we don’t meet someone and turn our back to them. Ha is the breath of life.

Tell me how this translates into a very intimate greeting.

The honi is the physical acting out of aloha. It says that I greet you, I touch nose to nose and I exchange what is most sacred to me [breath]. It is not this western, English military handshake, where I take my hand off my weapon to extend it, but I still have my left hand to possibly stab you with, which means I trust you but not by much. With that said, in traditional time we wouldn’t necessarily aloha everybody. Because if I aloha you, I accept responsibility for your well-being. I am bringing you in and making sure that you are okay, physically mentally spiritually. In traditional times, if they didn’t want to say aloha to somebody they wouldn’t.

Photography by Amber Caires, Amber Vision Photography

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